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A Summary of Ofsted's Geography Research Report for Primary Teachers and Leaders

On June 17th 2021, Ofsted released their research review into high quality geography curricula. It’s taken me some time to get through it all, as it’s packed with interesting and important considerations for leaders and teachers. I’ve put what I consider to be the most relevant information for those of us in the primary sector into this blog post. You can read the full report by clicking here.

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The report strikes me as being the most in-depth of the research reports which have been released so far. It contains lots of background information which I think is both relevant and informative for primary teachers, particularly those who aren’t subject specialists. I intend to use the report’s implications when we are considering the improvements we wish to make to our provision, and I look forward to sharing some of these once they are established. The report itself took a long time to read, and whilst I’ve tried to reduce the information to be more easily digestible, it’s taken almost 3000 words to do so. For that matter, here are the top three takeaways from the report.

🧠 Leaders and teachers need to carefully consider, select and sequence the content they want their pupils to learn. This content should be organised into manageable chunks, building into connected, composite ideas. Pupils need to learn about a wide range of ideas and contexts.

🔗 Geographical understanding comes from an appreciation of the key content and how ideas are related together. Individual components contribute to understanding of key concepts.

📚 It is vital that teachers develop their subject knowledge in order to be able to deliver a high-quality curriculum.

Jump to the relevant section:

🌎 What is Geography?

  • Geography is a unique subject in that it is a combination of both social and natural sciences. A geography curriculum should therefore reflect the importance of both and how they relate to each other.

  • The essence of geography is often lost when it is included as part of a topic-based approach. It is much more difficult to effectively teach geographical knowledge and skills in this way.

  • Geography can be understood as containing substantive and disciplinary knowledge. Substantive knowledge relates to different geographical domains of locational knowledge, place knowledge, human and physical processes and geographical skills. Disciplinary knowledge transcends each domain to represent how geographers think and interact with these key ideas.

💡 What should the geography curriculum include?

  • Leaders need to balance breadth of content with depth of study: this is a challenge.

  • When developing the curriculum, leaders need to identify the content to be taught and the knowledge of relationships between these ideas. This develops geographical understanding.

  • Content should be broken down into chunks or components which children can attend to and master, without overloading their working memory. This small steps approach allows pupils to understand key content in its own right.

  • Careful sequencing of the curriculum enables knowledge to be taught as components and then developed into composite ideas. As children progress, the ideas between components and composite ideas are explicitly taught so that children's conceptual understanding grows.

  • The organisation of the curriculum helps pupils make greater sense of the world around them.

  • It is important that there is sufficient time in the curriculum, given its breadth. Without this time, it is likely the school is narrowing the curriculum.

  • There is some tension in the National Curriculum because some components of geography may clash with the recommended stage of teaching in other subjects. The Water Cycle is a good example of this.

  • The challenge of the curriculum should increase over time, from the basic building blocks in EYFS to a sophisticated in-depth knowledge (in KS4 and beyond).

🪢 Geographical Concepts

  • Concepts act as a holding basket for geographical ideas and content. They can be understood as categories of knowledge, and are the grammar of the subject.

  • The 'big ideas of geography' are:

    • Place

    • Space

    • Scale

    • Interdependence

    • Physical and Human Processes

    • Environmental Impact

    • Sustainable Development

    • Cultural Awareness

    • Cultural Diversity

  • The abstract appreciation of these concepts come from developing relevant knowledge and skills, so that pupils can understand the links between these ideas. They are not really possible to be taught as stand alone 'things'; rather, they develop over time through building knowledge and making connections.

  • The curriculum should be organised into small steps of component knowledge and skills that can be understood in their own right; the combination of these components leads to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the concepts.

🧠 Types of Geographical Knowledge

🗺 Locational Knowledge

  • Teaching "where's where" helps pupils build their identify and develop a sense of place and an appreciation of distance and scale. It also enables them to learn about the orientation of the world by referencing continents and oceans.

  • This mental model allows children to understand the interconnectedness of places and enables them to understand how different places require different solutions to otherwise similar problems.

  • Additionally, this also develops pupils' spatial thinking, which is children's ability to locate and navigate.

  • It is crucial to teach positional vocabulary from the EYFS onwards. This develops from relative positions in Reception, such as near and far, to compass directions, to absolute positioning, which is making reference to longitude and latitude.

  • All children should build an increasingly extensive knowledge of different countries, regions and features. They should be able to recall this with improved fluency over time.

  • Leaders need to decide which locations pupils should be able to pinpoint in each year group; pupils should also be able to associate these locations with geographical features, such as climate .

🌃 Place Knowledge

  • This is considered to be the most important term used in geography.

  • Knowledge of place allows pupils to locate or orient themselves in respect of the larger global space. The human brain is hardwired to enable such spatial recognition.

  • A 'place', geographically speaking, is a physical area that can be found own a map and that has an identity (a name), or has a personal meaning or attachment.

  • Combining knowledge of physical topography and physical or human geography WITH personal experience leads to an understanding of SPACE, another key concept.

  • Combining locational knowledge and place knowledge supports pupils' understanding of scale.

  • A cohesive, coherent curriculum provides pupils with connections between places they already know about and new places. The curriculum should also be organised so that children master the component knowledge of what makes a place the way it is.

  • Knowledge of place develops a greater awareness of people, the environment and the relationships between them. It also develops relationships to the child's place, which builds a sense of belonging.

  • The National Curriculum requires teaching about different places but also about changes to a place over time. This might refer to human geography, such as migration, or physical geography, such as changes to a coastline.

🏕 Environmental, physical and human geography

  • Knowing why something occurs and the impacts it has are at the core of geography. There needs to be a balance between these aspects.

  • Pupils need to be able to:

    • Describe their own and others' environments.

    • Recognise similarities and differences between the world around them and contrasting environments.

    • Understand important processes and changes in the world around them, including those affecting the land, bodies of water and the air, people, and wildlife.

  • This requires careful sequencing - it is also important to focus on relationship between physical and human geography.

💭 Disciplinary Knowledge

  • There isn't a commonly held view of disciplinary knowledge in geography although Ofsted conceptualise it as specialised forms of knowledge and ways of thinking.

  • The purpose of academic geography is to inform, challenge and conceptually 're-wire' people's understanding of the world.

  • Ofsted recommend the 'powerful knowledge' approach where knowledge is open to debate, challenge and discussion by subject experts.

🗺 Map Skills

  • Pupils need to be taught how to construct their own maps and plans, and interpret both hard-copy and digital maps and plans including representations such as atlases and globes.

  • Pupils need to understand direction and scale in order to read maps proficiently.

  • Drawing maps supports pupils' identification of relationships between features.

  • Pupils in KS2 should be taught about topological and thematic mapping.

  • There needs to be regular practice of:

    • decoding information from maps

    • constructing maps

    • analysing distributions or relationships

    • route-finding

    • interpreting information to draw conclusions

  • Map reading is important because proficiency in the skill supports pupils' strength in relating geographical concepts.

  • In primary, the curriculum should explicitly develop pupils' ability to interpret more complex maths, such as aerial photography.

🪜 Curriculum as the Progression Model

  • It is important to explicitly map out the knowledge schools intend for children to know so that they can be led towards gaining expertise. This is very much the long game, as expertise or sophistication in understanding geographical concepts can often only come toward the end of KS4 or during A-levels.

  • The curriculum should be planned so that the nature of geography is reflected in the content and learning activities children are involved in.

  • There isn't huge agreement in the literature about what pupils should know and when; therefore, general statements might be better overall so that teachers can interpret and develop them in their own context.

  • Mapping of knowledge should start from the EYFS.

  • The content of the curriculum should be carefully considered by leaders, particularly given the lack of specificity in the National Curriculum.

  • Pupil progress can be tracked by aligning assessments to the content - through reviewing work and assessment information, leaders can track gains.

💭 Thinking Like A Geographer

  • Teachers should model to pupils the way that geographers question and explain the world

    • Use what they know from one context to another

    • Think about alternative futures

    • Consider their influence on decisions that will be made

  • Teachers should ask the following types of questions:

    • Where is this place?

    • Why is it here and not there?

    • What is it like?

    • How did it get like this?

  • The curriculum needs to give pupils the knowledge they need to habitually ask these geographical questions and learn how geographers reach answers.

  • Geographers 'zoom in' and 'zoom out': pupils should develop their sense of scale by exploring geography at local, regional and global levels.

🎒 Fieldwork

  • Fieldwork connects learning in the classroom with the complexity of the real world: it is formal education outside of the classroom.

  • It involves making observations, collecting and analysing data, and describing their findings - all about the environment around them.

  • The immersion in thinking about relevant features makes the knowledge stick in their memory. For example, explaining observations draws on knowledge of human and physical processes and locational knowledge.

  • It is important to teach the procedural knowledge that children need in order to complete fieldwork with rigour. (This is similar to science). It is also important to teach about the limitations of the methods in geography (a difference to the scientific method).

  • Fieldwork should not be tokenistic; rather, it should be integral to developing understanding of the content children are learning about.

  • Fieldwork is a significant investment of time, particularly if it's offsite.

  • Fieldwork should take place regularly and in different environments.

📖 Choosing Examples

  • Using contexts and examples exemplifies concepts. Case studies are a great way of achieving this.

  • Teachers should teach about both the local and the global and how the two are linked.

  • Case studies should help pupils build knowledge of the world and provide an opportunity to use GIS in order to turn the space into place knowledge.

  • There should be a wide range of examples at varying scales and complexity - this allows pupils to apply their knowledge in different contexts

  • Using particular locations or events expands and extends pupils' knowledge of the world and helps them appreciate how their own lives are affected.

  • Leaders and teachers should give considerable thought to their selection of examples and case studies.

  • It is important not to limit pupils' understanding to a particular event. For example, it is important that pupils do not only encounter a limited aspect of a country, such as flooding in Bangladesh. Avoid the 'single story.'

  • Exploring a range of topics through a case study allows pupils to gain a deeper, richer understanding of the links between geographical features and phenomena.

  • Using primary sources ensures the authenticity of how a place is represented: case studies, data and images should be appropriate - they should not portray inaccuracies or stereotypes.

  • Whilst films and documentaries may be visually appealing, they can often include concepts and knowledge which is beyond the scope of the pupils' prior learning, thus making the information more superficial, as the individual component ideas are not explored.

🤔 Misconceptions

  • Geography teaching has a specific responsibility to tackle pupils’ misconceptions about their world.

  • Many pupils approach their learning with misconceptions already formed.

  • Teachers’ subject knowledge needs to be secure in order to tackle such misconceptions.

  • It is important to provide the specific meaning of geographical vocabulary and how this might differ from colloquial or everyday use. For example, an 'oasis' has a specific geographical definition in addition to its literary usage of being a calm place.

  • Teaching activities should build pupils’ knowledge and skills progressively.

  • Pupils need time to secure the key content of each teaching sequence.

  • Teachers can help prevent misconceptions from forming by avoiding cutting corners in teaching sequences so that pupils can gain a full appreciation of what they are learning.

🧒 Early Years

  • The EYFS is a critical starting point for children's learning. It is at this point they begin to build knowledge of geographical features and phenomena, as well as begin their development of spatial reasoning.

  • There is increased specificity in the new EYFS framework for the geographical knowledge and skills Reception children need to learn.

  • Learning vocabulary for these ideas is of the utmost importance and prepares children for the next step in their learning.

  • Key vocabulary includes words relating to relative positions such as near, far etc.

👨‍🏫 Pedagogy

  • A key feature of a high-quality curriculum is that activities translate the intended curriculum into effective experiences which allow pupils to learn and remember new content.

  • The way in which teachers plan activities makes a difference to how pupils gain knowledge and skills, and develop empathy, values and perspectives: teachers should have a clear rationale for the approaches they take and why they are successful.

  • It is important to draw pupils' attention to scale and interrelationships when using maps in all subjects; they give a visual representation which fosters spatial thinking.

  • Comparison as a cognitive process is valuable in identifying common features and generalising but also in comparing differences and similarities.

  • Enquiry-based Learning: There is a difference between asking geographical questions and selecting the content to answer them, and using questions to open up different problems and solutions. Novices benefit from the former as successful enquiry-based learning requires very careful balance of cognitive load.

🧠 Memory

  • There is a clear expectation that pupils need to remember what they have been taught; remembering the key content of each lesson enables success with the next (and so on).

  • The curriculum should be organised so that substantive and disciplinary knowledge are presented and repeated in ways which show how components and composite ideas fit together.

  • It is important to remember the limitations of children's working memory, meaning that activities should be devised so that the most important knowledge components are few in number to avoid overloading. Teachers should also identify tasks that help pupils secure this key knowledge.

  • Retrieval practice is an effective way of providing the practice children need to recall and revisit what they have learned.

  • Key geographical knowledge and skills should be 'over-learned' to automaticity, including the reading of maps.

🪜 Expectations for SEND Pupils

  • It is rarely necessary to make changes to the curriculum for pupils with SEND; it is sometimes necessary to modify approaches.

  • There is a need for all pupils to share the same curriculum, and same level of ambition and expectation for geographical knowledge. (Except for the most complex learning needs)

  • Pupils' specific needs dictate the modifications required e.g. well-spaced print benefits dyslexic pupils.

  • Designing lessons which 'chunks' components of knowledge into small steps supports those pupils who find learning more difficult.

  • It is important to brief TAs about the content they may be supporting pupils with.

😃 Pupils' motivation and interest

  • Pupils are more motivated when they learn knowledge that they can link to their prior understanding

  • Motivation therefore comes from having a secure grasp of what they are learning.

  • Content can also be intrinsically interesting to children if it is something they can relate to. Comparing new places to places they are already familiar with is an effective way of doing so.

  • Personal experiences and media headlines should not narrow the curriculum.

🥅 Assessment

  • Teachers should use assessment to identify misconceptions and gaps in prior knowledge and to evaluate how secure pupils are in their prior learning before they plan lessons.

  • Class teachers should use assessments that are designed to check that the intended curriculum has been covered and that identify how secure pupils' knowledge is.

  • Formative assessment has a significant impact on pupils' outcomes, motivation and autonomy.

  • Retrieval practice enhances recall, particularly when questions are drawn from recent teaching and that in the further and far past. They can help pupils over learn concepts and procedures which increases their fluency.

  • As the geography curriculum is cumulative, the knowledge of complexity isn't often reached until the end of the key stage; many concepts aren't fully appreciated until KS4 or beyond. Linear progress ladders do not serve the subject well.

  • With formative assessment, pupils need to be clear about what they are to do to improve, and teachers should use their findings to adapt their teaching.

🎓 Subject Leadership

  • Geography needs clear leadership and the leaders need sound subject knowledge and understanding.

  • There is a great need for geography leaders to develop their subject knowledge and have subject-specific support and professional networks.

🗺 Resources

  • It is important to have access to high-quality and up-to-date resources. These include different types of maths (topographical as well as topological) at various scales and in both hard copy and in digital form. Additionally, atlases, globes, aerial and satellite imagery, and GIS are also important resources for schools to possess.

  • There is a need to ensure that atlases are up-to-date with changes to relevant countries for example.

  • Live, or real-time, data can provide interest in a topic due to its positive impact: it brings realism and relevance to pupils' studies.

  • The learning environment is important too: there should be maps and globes in classrooms as this contributes to spatial cognition.

🧑‍🏫 Non-specialist teachers

  • Teachers' subject knowledge plays a huge part in ensuring a high-quality curriculum.

  • It is important for teachers to have secure subject knowledge and appreciate of structure of geography as a subject

  • It is also important to bring together teachers' knowledge of the content, the discipline and the ways geography can be taught.

  • Subject-specific training is critical. In-service professional development is paramount.

  • Non-specialist primary teachers (including headteachers) might have an outdated image of geography and have difficulty in interpreting the nature of the subject.

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